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Vol. 106: Hair in the Gate

Posted on 22 December 2018


Some time ago I saw a documentary called “Everything Which Is… Yes.” In 2008, David Hoffman suffered a catastrophic fire that burned down his home. He discusses it in this Ted talk. Hoffman is a collector—of documents, photographs, research files, magazines, and his own films. The master for a Cannes-winning film was destroyed. Through the process, he said he kept thinking, I have to make good from the bad, good from the bad. He galvanized friends and family members to work with him to sift through the wreckage and salvage what they could. He thought some of the photographs looked a bit more special singed around the edges—it showed they had survived something.

Ultimately, he made the documentary “Everything Which Is…Yes” to commemorate that loss, and also to give voice to the value of going on. Going on when everything around you has burned down is a good metaphor for artists who have to keep going despite whatever landscape they face around them. It’s a good metaphor for me—a writer who has to make major shifts to clear the way to create. There are the logistical hurdles: how many days a week, where, how many hours can you grab on a day during the work week, how many hours can you commit on the weekend and still have a functioning life and a well-nurtured child? There are the emotional and mental hurdles: what do I do with this exhaustion, how can I convince myself that the fifth draft of this novel will finally be something, how do I know what project to work on, how can I put away the preoccupations of middle age and devote myself to the story on the page?

That’s the beauty of artmaking. Like parenting, its demands change over time. You change, your work changes, your motivation for artmaking changes and yet there is still this need to create. Hoffman said he believes the instinct to make good from bad is hard-wired in him. It is hardwired in me too. Yeah, being an adult can be miserable—are you just gonna sit there being miserable, or you gonna find/make/conjure up a pocket of good to help you carry on. I come from a people who have built an entire culture—physically, musically, culinary—on the belief that life is to be celebrated and the human spirit can supersede any trauma the body is subject to. So the dirt is tough and the rain is a long time a coming and the sun ain’t shone on your skin in ages, you better flower anyway and be that shining miracle God made you.

One of the things Hoffman remembered from his early filmmaking days was making a way out of no way and creating work that wasn’t perfect—prioritizing the making of the thing rather than the perfection of the thing, prioritizing the making of the thing over waiting for the conditions to be right. He referenced the cinematography term: hair in the gate—the term for hair and other specs on camera as you’re shooting. In a professional setting, you’ll stop shooting, clean the lens and start over if you get a hair in the gate. Hoffman remembers a time when “Even if you had a hair in the gate, we all had hairs in the gate, that didn’t stop you.”

This has been my guiding principle over the past few years of art making (and must remain my principle moving forward.) Until I have those perfect conditions (if I ever get them), I must continue to work with a hair in the gate. Those frustrations, imperfections and irritations are a part of life—especially if you’re juggling multiple priorities. Whether it’s learning to dance around the logistic hurdles, or learning to relate to the art differently, committing to keeping shooting—keeping going—even when there’s a hair in the gate is the only way to continue to make art.

I’ve been circling around surrender for a long time. For me, surrender is allowing things to be flawed and still carrying them through. It is understanding that the roughness of a thing does not destroy its value—so I must discipline myself to value even the roughest of my efforts. It is believing that there is a path beneath my feet—whether or not I can see it, whether or not it is covered in brambles, whether or not it appears to veer away from my goals—I have to believe that my actions count for something. I am fiercely committed to believe that my repeated attempts aren’t repeated failures, but an ever-ascending climb to knowing my voice, honing my strategies, and strengthening my craft. As Hoffman says, “That’s what I’m beginning realize now. Always. I seem to make decisions that were like accidents, and I realize now they weren’t accidents. They all went in the right direction. Maybe the situation was not so good, but I lived it. I didn’t just pass through it.”

I plan to still be here and working when this all starts to make sense. I’m brave enough not to cut off my attempts because they didn’t meet my imagined achievement timeline. I choose to accept that growth is the journey and the flowering is natural and does not need to be forced. This road—long and hilly as it may be—is always, always, always leading back to me.

Happy 2019.

Be well. Be love[d].

Kiini Ibura Salaam.